The NFL offseason is nearly upon us. While others focus on free agency and how NFL teams might find ways to improve via deals big and small, I'm looking ahead to the NFL Draft and what it has to offer in terms of dynasty fantasy football talent for 2021 and beyond.
Throughout draft szn, I'll be delivering top-five lists at every fantasy position to keep tabs on the top dynasty prospects on the horizon. For those looking to dig deeper, PFF's 2021 NFL Draft Guide is a crucial resource, currently breaking down the top 200 college prospects. The second edition is live and will be further updated throughout the offseason leading up to the NFL Draft in April.
So far, I’ve hit on incoming rookie running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks, which means tight ends are up next. Let's dig into the top five tight ends for dynasty fantasy football leagues in 2021 with a focus on each TE's effectiveness in the passing game. Unless, of course, your league is a PPB (points per block) scoring format.
Comparing Kyle Pitts’ 2020 season to other tight ends doesn't do him justice. His PFF grade (96.1) led all tight ends and was the highest grade in the PFF era. It was also better than any wide receiver.
The playmaker from Florida is a “tight end” by positional designation, but make no mistake that he is much more of a wide receiver — and an excellent one at that. His ability to create separation against opposing defensive backs is top-rate.
Pitts earned a 97.0 PFF receiving grade and averaged 4.91 yards per route run against man coverage. Those ranked first and second, respectively, among all players. No other tight end averaged over 3.0 yards per route run or posted a grade higher than 87.2.
The John Mackey award-winner also thrived as a vertical threat. He led all tight ends in catches (10) and yards on targets 20-plus yards downfield.
The other aspect of Pitts' game that can't be ignored is his sure-hands — he didn't have a drop on 65 targets. He was the only player in college football to have zero drops while commanding at least 65 targets. Alligator Arms? Never heard of em’.
What’s equally impressive is that Pitts had this insane season of production (32% dominator rating) at just 20 years old. High-end, age-adjusted production is extremely encouraging for receivers and tight ends as they enter the next level.
Pitts technically “broke out” during his 19-year-old sophomore season in 2019 when he posted dominator rating over 15%. The guy has it all — he'll be a mismatch nightmare for opposing linebackers and safeties at the next level.
Pitts' one true weakness is his lack of strength inline blocking. The only way this becomes a problem is if it dramatically influences the number of snaps he plays. Ideally, we don’t want our tight ends to block anyway, so if he's running routes and racking up fantasy points that's even better.
I'm assuming the team that drafts Pitts does so for his pass-catching props and not because they want to mold him more into a well-rounded tight end.
Pitts’ naysayers will point to the fact that rookie tight ends rarely produce in their first seasons, but I’d argue that no rookie tight end in recent memory fits the profile of Pitts. Banking on him delivering in his first season is a stretch, but the positional advantage he could provide might make him well worth the early rookie draft capital.
Miami’s Brevin Jordan enjoyed an excellent season in 2020, finishing with career highs in receiving yards (576), receptions (38) missed tackles forced (nine) and receiving touchdowns (seven). His overall production earned a dominator rating of 36% in his eight games played.
The Canes’ tight end did the majority of his damage after the catch, from the slot and against man coverage. He finished second in yards after the catch per reception (9.3) and No. 1 in yards per route run from the slot (2.42) among tight ends (71% slot snap share) this past season.
Jordan ranks second in receptions and 13th in yards per route run versus man coverage (2.66) since entering college football in 2018.
Brevin Jordan among ACC Tight Ends:
????Yards after catch: 313 (1st)
????Plays of 15+ yards: 15 (1st)
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) September 9, 2020
Jordan's career started with a bang at just 18 years old, earning a 17% dominator rating as a true freshman.
There’s plenty to like about Jordan’s profile when it comes to his receiving ability, and that makes him extremely intriguing for fantasy football. The PFF 2021 Draft Guide cites a path to success for Jordan — landing on a team that leverages a Shanahan-Kubiak scheme that looks to get tight ends in space and let their YAC-ability take over.
I’ve seen plenty of mock drafts that have Pitts going in the first round to the San Francisco 49ers, but maybe S.F. is better off addressing the position later in the draft with a YAC-monster like Jordan.
He needs to be in the right scheme to highlight his strengths, because his ball skills leave a lot to be desired. Jordan caught just 11 of his 33 contested targets in his college career.
Fantasy managers can at least rest assured that Jordan will most likely only be used as a receiver, since he has little to no experience inline blocking. His current rookie ADP per Matt Hicks sits at 2.09, which is way too cheap. I’d be fine letting others draft Pat Freiermuth first and taking Jordan later. When in doubt, chase the upside receiving production.
Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth comes in at No. 3 as the most well-rounded incoming rookie at the position. He's been dubbed “Baby Gronk” for his combination of size, speed, route-running prowess and dominant inline-blocking ability. His “Gronkness” was on full display in 2019 when he broke nine tackles on 43 catches (21% broken tackle rate).
Penn State's Pat Freiermuth is a bully, probably best to just get out of his way.pic.twitter.com/q8KdQYcwNa
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) June 4, 2020
As a 20-year-old freshman, Freiermuth broke out with a commanding 26% dominator rating on the back of eight receiving touchdowns while also competing for targets with future second-round wide receiver K.J. Hamler.
He continued to be heavily involved in the offense over his next two seasons, posting an 18.5% target share his sophomore year with seven touchdowns. He followed that up with a whopping 27.8% target share in four games in 2020.
Most tight ends won’t ever come close to being that heavily involved in their offense at the college level — that makes Freiermuth stand out from the masses.
His overall production in three collegiate seasons — third in touchdowns (16), ninth in yards (1,185), fourth in explosive plays (39) and fifth in contested catches (18) — shows that he can produce when used in the passing game. Ultimately, his “strength” as a blocker could hold him back in fantasy early on.
I’d compare him to Cole Kmet when he came out of school last season. The major difference is that Freiermuth’s draft cost will be much more suppressed come rookie draft season.
Kmet’s draft stock was inflated because he was viewed as the top tight end in last year’s class. That won’t be the case with Freiermuth as long as Pitts’ draft stock remains intact.
From an experience and production standpoint, Hunter Long stacks up nicely with the top tight ends in this class. In the admittedly shortened 2020 season, Long led the nation in targets (89) and catches (57) while also finishing second in receiving yards. Those were all career-high marks for the tight end from Boston College.
Long’s final season certainly drove his draft stock way up after he entered the year relatively under the radar. But he shouldn't have been so overlooked by scouts and talking heads.
Long posted an 18% dominator rating as a redshirt sophomore in 2019. He finished eighth in PFF receiving grade (86.6), third in yards per catch (18.8), fourth in yards after the catch per reception (10.8) and second in yards per route run (3.15) at the tight end position.
His overall efficiency fell off in 2020 with increased volume as he became a focal point of the offense. He posted a 22% dominator rating and saw at least 12 targets in three games.
Long's ability to beat man coverage should also translate to the NFL. He is PFF’s second-highest-graded tight end (91.8) when facing man coverage since the start of the 2019 season.
Long has all the tools to be successful at the next level, but his upside might be capped due to his average athletic profile and lack of dynamism. He broke just three tackles on his 57 receptions.
Don’t be overaggressive targeting Long in rookie drafts, because his projection has him falling in the category of “streaming” fantasy tight end instead of true difference-maker.
Kylen Granson started his college career at Rice in 2016 and posted a 17% dominator rating to hit the early-age breakout threshold at just 18. In his eight games, Granson led the team in targets (52) and receptions (33).
After a disappointing second season at Rice in 2017, Granson opted to transfer to SMU and play for the Mustangs at the start of the 2019 season. Granson was again an immediate contributor to his new offense.
He ranked fifth in receiving yards (721), second in receiving touchdowns (nine), second in targets of 20-plus yards and fourth in routes run (414) at the tight end position.
That production resulted in a 22% dominator rating. His high-end involvement continued into 2020 when he finished second on the team with 536 receiving yards — eighth at the position in the country.
In his two seasons at SMU, Granson almost exclusively played in the slot (70%) because he didn’t have the physical strength to be an inline blocker. His overall status as a “tweener” and lack of run-blocking skills will almost certainly relegate him to Day 3 status, but his receiving ability makes him worth a late-round flier in rookie drafts.
He can win vertically and create yards after the catch, which could certainly translate to fantasy points if he can muster some opportunities at the next level.
Kylen Granson is such a fun TE to watch! Lines up all over the field, and is a mismatch nightmare. Excellent for today’s NFL.
— Dan W. (@ChargersHomer) January 26, 2021